In tip of cap, Palmeiro era begins here OPENING DAY '94

April 05, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The home run was a high, lazy fly to right that kept drifting out until it drifted right over the scoreboard. "I didn't think it was going to make it at first," Rafael Palmeiro said later.

It was the 133rd homer of Palmeiro's career, not much to look at, not particularly important. The Orioles were already up four runs on the Royals in the seventh inning, the big crowd starting to celebrate that sweetest of baseball turns, a win on Opening Day. Palmeiro circled the bases and headed for the dugout.

And the fans kept cheering.

And cheering.

Palmeiro finished shaking hands with his teammates, stopped at the bottom of the dugout steps, turned and looked back out at the stands. Thirty seconds after his homer had landed in the flag court, the fans were still standing, still shouting.

"What do they want?" he said out loud.

A 29-year-old, two-time All-Star with a career .296 average, one of the best hitters of his generation, he had played six-plus years in the bigs without ever being asked to make a curtain call.

"They're not gonna stop until they see you," manager Johnny Oates said to Palmeiro, standing at the edge of the dugout.

Palmeiro hesitated briefly. The roar continued to grow.

"This town is yours," Oates said. "You better get out there and tip your cap."

Palmeiro leapt to the top step of the dugout, raised his black cap and waved it, acknowledging the cheers for maybe two seconds. The fans finally stopped cheering.

Palmeiro sat down on the bench, popped a huge wad of gum into his mouth, sat back and sighed contentedly, looking like a king who had just finished a feast.

The city of the baseball monster had turned a commonplace homer into a moment that was anything but common for him.

"The most special moment of my career," he said in the clubhouse after the Orioles' 6-3 win.

Ever?

"Ever," he said.

Because . . .

"Because I've never had fans make me feel that special," he said. "I've had great games and ovations and all, been an All-Star, but never anything like that. I'll never forget it.

"People had told me how great it was to play here, and I'd seen it coming in with the Rangers the last two years, the way the city supported the players. But to be the recipient of it is just incredible."

It was generally thought that Chris Sabo would be the new Oriole most embraced by the city because of his blue-collar, face-in-the-dust attitude, but Palmeiro was the clear winner yesterday. During the pre-game introductions beneath a bright blue sky, Palmeiro's cheer was every bit as loud as Cal Ripken's, if you can believe that.

It was as if the fans were using the $30 million first baseman as a symbol of their appreciation for the off-season spending spree that turned the Orioles into a top contender.

As well, it probably was a reaction to Palmeiro admitting that he felt unappreciated by management in Texas and longed for the kind of mega-popularity often enjoyed by players around whom teams are built. It is the kind of popularity only one baseball player could get in Dallas Cowboys country.

"Nolan [Ryan] was the only one who got ovations down there [in Texas]," Palmeiro said. "He deserved every one of them, of course. But I never got one."

Never got one despite hitting .319 and .322 in '90 and '91, then delivering 37 homers and 105 RBI last season.

Yesterday, on an afternoon when he also singled and made a big defensive play in the third, diving to stop a ground ball and helping Mike Mussina escape a two-on, none-out predicament (he has now gone 114 games and 1,137 chances without making an error), the lesson for him to learn was this:

Put up similarly loud numbers in this city -- a city where baseball is so important it hurts, a city desperate to see a postseason game in its jewel of a ballpark -- and he will make a prophet of Johnny Oates. The city will, indeed, be his.

"Those cheers make me want to go out there and play my butt off for them," he said. "I feel like today is the beginning of a good, long relationship."

Since signing with the Orioles he often has admitted that he would rather be in Texas, where his family was happy and he is building a house. Slowly, however, you can see him beginning to understand that maybe, just maybe, he is better off here, as a centerpiece on the only team in town.

"It was tough to leave Texas, but I want to play here," he said. "The fans in Texas supported me, but what happens here is special. It reminds me of Chicago when I played for the Cubs. The whole city was nuts for the team. It's the same here, obviously. I look around and see a great team, a great city to play in. . . . I couldn't ask for a better situation. It's the best for me. I really think it is."

Amazing what one well-timed, extra-long pop fly can accomplish, huh?

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